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Colorblindness and Justice

Throughout US history, people of color have commonly been conceived as deviants and threats to the social, economic, and political fabric of American society. The chief motive of dehumanizing people of color, often through the use of overt racial caste systems or systems of control, such as slavery and Jim Crow laws, was to maintain racial divisions and perpetual white dominance (Alexander, 2010; Horsman, 1981; Mills, 1997). Although major civil rights advancements such as the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution legally barred overt racial caste systems, many view mass incarceration as replacing overt racism with more covert mechanisms of racial oppression (Alexander, 2010; Forman, 2012; Wacquant, 2000, 2002).

In her widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow (2010), legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs initiative served as a key mechanism through which the mass incarceration of people of color, particularly African American men, was rationalized and implemented. Specifically, the War on Drugs enabled racially biased policing and drug operations in communities of color, which resulted in the disproportionate arrest, conviction, and sentencing of people of color. Moreover, by focusing on drug-related offenses, people of color are often unable to challenge criminal justice policies and procedures on the basis of race, which has aided in the development of this new, more covert racial caste system (Alexander, 2010).

The ideology of colorblindness has also subtly contributed to widespread public acceptance of mass incarceration. Colorblindness, a sociological term that evolved following the US Civil Rights Movement, suggests that racial characteristics of all groups should be ignored with regards to material and symbolic advantage and disadvantage, in order to ensure racial equality (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Hanley-Lopez, 2010). Alexander (2010) argues that the gradual acceptance of a colorblind discourse, specifically as it pertains to the criminal justice system, has served to replace the stigma of race with the stigma of criminal, thus masking the racism that still permeates all aspects of the justice system.

Alexander (2010) further asserts that mass incarceration is “veiled by the cloak of colorblindness” (p. 223), such that conservatives can broadly assert that society should be concerned with individuals rather than groups, and liberals can maintain hope that the construct of race will eventually lose its significance. Following this logic, reentry programs, particularly those that are set within the institutional frame of the corrections system, will be likely geared toward the idea that “anyone can make it if they try” (Alexander, 2010, p. 245). In this sense, reentry programs, even those rooted in community-based organizations, may be likely to avoid topics such as race and racism as they may conform to the prevailing race-neutral discourse of the prison and reentry system.

Significance of the Study

To date, empirical research has established the existence of significant barriers to gainful employment for people of color with criminal records. Community-based reentry programs often focus on building skills toward employment, which is understandable given the connection between employment and recidivism reduction. Yet still, ex-offenders of color are likely to face bleak job prospects and discrimination. Thus the practice of preparation for employment in a community-based reentry program presents an interesting paradox: how do you train ex-offenders of color for employment when in all likelihood they may not be able to get a job? How do program instructors address issues of racism and discrimination in their training materials, conversations, and lessons? Do they follow some of the language of race-neutrality, or do they address contemporary racial realities more directly? These are some of the questions that we examine in this chapter.

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